Netflix's 'A Secret Love' explores the vanishing reality of having to live in the closet

The story of a woman who inspired "A League of Their Own" and her wife will make you cry, though having to hide one's sexuality is hardly ancient history.
Image: Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel in A Secret Love
Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel in "A Secret Love."Courtesy Netflix
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By Kera Bolonik

In 2001, I went to Florida to visit a college friend with whom I had once been in love. I was turning 30, and it would be three more months before I'd meet my now-wife; my friend, who was about to turn 32, had just been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and was living with a woman after having been married briefly to a man.

It was not her first — or even her second — same-sex relationship, but she had never been out, and I sensed immediately after I arrived that we were not to speak of her sexuality or even mine, despite the fact that she'd told me in college that she loved women and we'd even had a fling years earlier.

Back then, in the mid-'90s, she'd told me (with a mix of derision and awe) that being out was something I could do but that it wasn't for her. She was certain her family wouldn't be able to bear it, and she was terrified of being disowned by the people who loved her. No matter what I told her, throughout our 20s and 30s, she was certain that family exile would be her fate were she to come out.

And so in 2006, despite the fact that she and her partner traveled together, owned property together and lived together, she took her not-so-secret "secret" to her very early grave.

The fact of it still twists my heart into knots.

The decision to spend even so short a life in the closet may be hard to imagine in 2020, especially for a younger generation of adults who have lived in a considerably more accepting world. But it was not that long ago that many of us in the LGBTQ community were inured to embracing whatever "tolerance" we were afforded by our cisgender, heterosexual families and friends. (To put things in perspective, when I met my wife in 2001, legalizing same-sex marriage struck everyone as a lofty, near-unobtainable goal.)

I write this all so younger readers can begin to appreciate why Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, the octogenarian female couple at the center of the deeply affecting new Netflix documentary "A Secret Love," kept their relationship from their families for over 65 years and agonized over when and how to have the coming-out conversation a decade ago in 2009.

When we first meet Donahue and Henschel in the film — which is lovingly directed by Donahue's great-nephew Chris Bolan — it's in their St. Charles, Illinois, home. Donahue — once a star athlete who played for the All-American Girls Baseball League, which inspired the 1992 film "A League of Their Own" — is ravaged by tremors from Parkinson's disease and the couple is grappling with the painful reality that they're going to have to relinquish some of their autonomy by moving closer to family, into assisted living or both.

All of that means they'll be moving away from their chosen family of LGBTQ friends and closer to relatives in Edmonton, Alberta. Those relatives have no idea that their Auntie Terry and her constant companion — whom they know as Auntie Pat (and whom others regard as Auntie Terry's "cousin") — have been a couple since 1947, when they met on a hockey rink (Pat was 18; Terry was 22).

They have no clue that two women living and owning property together for decades and working together for many years might be anything more than a platonic arrangement of convenience — you know, the way single heterosexual women always just move in and do everything together, like in network sitcoms.

But as the documentary starts in 2009, Pat and Terry are contemplating getting married — four years before it would become legal in Illinois (2013) and six years before it would become a federal right (2015) — upon the move to Canada, where it is legal. And so Pat presses Terry to invite her favorite niece, Diana Bolan (the filmmaker's mother), for dinner one evening to tell her about their relationship. The tension for Terry is almost too much to bear: She is terrified of being rejected by a person she loves and regards as a daughter.

Understand: This is a couple who lived "underground" for decades before the film was made, who endured the terror of bar raids, when lesbians, gay men and trans people were arrested and thrown into paddy wagons for dressing in clothing deemed appropriate only for the opposite sex or dancing with people of the same sex. They could have been fired and blacklisted in their industries their entire working lives and publicly shamed and disowned by their families and friends for their entire time together. They tore their own signatures from their love letters to each other for fear of being incriminated; they hid reels and reels of film of their life together. They felt, in their words, that "the only time you could let your hair down was when you were with our own."

So when Terry does finally come out as "gay," telling her niece that she and Pat have been a couple for decades, Diana seems genuinely surprised — but the love she has for her Aunt Terry is undeniable. What she tells her, though, is "I don't care," and she gives her a huge hug.

Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel in "A Secret Love."Courtesy Netflix

Her reaction is supposed to be reassuring; this is the old-school "tolerance" LGBTQ people of my generation were primed to happily accept. And Terry did need to hear that she wasn't going to be cast out or judged, so Diana's words came as a tremendous relief. (Diana's is, it should be said, a much better reaction than that of Pat's one surviving brother, who refuses to accept the prospect of her and Terry's getting married at all.)

But with Diana's acceptance comes a new set of anxieties: She offers to help Terry and Pat transition into the next phase of their lives.

Filmmaker Bolan thereafter reveals a lot of family drama, including simmering resentments between Terry's nieces and Pat, whose wary and self-protective instincts the nieces have long mistaken as a cool and distant nature; all compete for Terry's unwavering affection and attention.

But "A Secret Love" thankfully doesn't rehash the usual tropes of elderly LGBTQ love stories; rather, Bolan decided to put on record — with great love, care and thoroughness — the story of one incredible couple's 72-year relationship, which was at great risk of erasure.

He does so while also tracing the evolution of his family's growing understanding and ultimate embrace of their aunts' secret life together — not only of their relationship, but also of Auntie Pat's and Auntie Terry's whole other, chosen family. So when it comes time to help them move out of Illinois, the chosen family and the blood relatives both ensure that Terry and Pat will be together in a place that can care for them as a couple and where they can care for each other, respectful of their wishes and of their marriage, until death do they part.